Healthy Tension

On the morning of August 7th, 1974, six years of planning by Philippe Petit came to fruition in what has been called the art crime of the century.  His team referred to it as “le coupe.”  Petit and his band of gypsies strung a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and Petit walked the wire eight times over a 45 minute period, about a quarter mile above ground. 

People were in awe of his incredible balance in turbulent conditions.  However balance cannot be achieved without tension.  The tension of the wire was what made the death defying feat possible in harrowing conditions, and certainly increased his performance.

Most people view relational tension inside of organizations as unhealthy, and that the removal of tension will always achieve a cultural gain.  However, we must recognize that tension is necessary to produce and work through the ideas, concepts and processes that propel an organization forward. 

There are healthy and unhealthy forms of tension, and leaders must be able to recognize the difference between the two.  The two qualities that anchor tension are frustration and expectation.  Each of these qualities can be expressed positively or negatively.  In that regard, frustrations and expectations can either work as a healthy agent for change or a destructive force as they create either positive or negative tension inside your organization. 

Negative tension can be divisive inside any organization.  It’s a cancer that erodes relationships and impedes healthy communication.  It creates battle lines between departments and individuals.  We want to eliminate negative tension at any cost, and foster the mindsets that create positive tension.  Let's look at each of the anchors that create tension.

Frustration

Negative tension is created when we focus our frustrations on the performance of others, and we become toxic.  We allow their behaviors to affect our performance, our buy in, and our contribution to the organization. 

High performance individuals expect a lot out of themselves and others around them.  Having high expectations is critical, but when we allow the underperformance of others to create negative frustrations in us, that subsequently undermine our performance, we are at fault.  Negative frustration is not an acceptable response to the performance of others, it will not foster healthy tension. 

Frustrations should be directed inward, towards our personal contribution and performance.  We should be asking ourselves “what does the team need from me?” or “What gains can I make that will affect others positively”?  In a situation where others may be falling behind, we must approach the situation from the standpoint of “what can I do to help them navigate this difficult situation?”

Expectation

Having the wrong expectations can be incredibly deceptive because they seem accurate, yet  they can undermine the entire outlook a person has on the organization.  Once people buy into false expectations they may unknowingly undermine their own performance and therefore their career.

There are two deceptive negative expectations are:

  1. Expecting everything to always go right.

  2. Expecting everything to always go wrong.

Those who expect everything to always go right, are those who throw temper tantrums at the slightest inconvenience or interruption to the plan. They complain and whine about the things “they have to deal with.”  It fuels the blame game. 

Those who expect everything to go wrong are the quiet assasins.  They won’t buy in and they won’t try because they simply do not believe in the plan, process or people involved.  They might nod their head yes, but inside they have finalized the outcome as failure. 

There is only one outlook, one expectation people should have, and it should prevail as the singular mindset of the team regarding expectation.  Positive expectation is expressed as “whatever challenges may arise today, we are well able to overcome them.”  It’s not the presence or absence of challenge that validates an unrealistic expectation, it is the pragmatic understanding that we will face challenges in our future but they can be conquered.

Creating positive tension inside of an organization will allow people to work through difficult situations during challenging times  Leaders must demonstrate the proper mindsets and behaviors that will bleed out into the organization and cause positive change in culture. It is the leader that must example healthy frustrations and healthy expectations to foster healthy tension inside the organization.